Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol (1967). Image Source: Christie's.
From the 1960s onward, alternate histories became very popular with the Baby Boomer demographic. The genre has long precedents - but it has a special place in the last half of the 20th century.**
Most alternate histories imagined by Baby Boomers are dystopian, eerie, fascist and terrifying. These are explorations of 'what could have been' if World War II or another key moment in history had turned out differently, which would have meant that the Boomers themselves would not come along. These stories reassure against generational doubt, and implicitly insist on the rightness of 1968's path. Later books involve Boomer meditations on what-ifs around post WWII events: the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy assassinations, 9/11.
Given this generational fascination with fictional historical alternatives, it may seem strange that a very real, living alternate history has been ignored or smoothered by the Boomer media. This is so much the case that among generational commentators, that alternative might as well not exist.
There is a real alternate history to the Baby Boomers' 1968 social revolution, and it is the legacy of the Silent generation, born roughly from 1925 to 1945. Silents were dubbed as silent when they were anything but. They created a reality that shared elements of Boomer ideals, but Boomers could not fully appropriate these elements for their radical and iconoclastic ends. If you want to see the Boomers' 'path not traveled,' you have to look at the work and perspectives of the Silent generation.
Monty Python in 1969 (Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, John Cleese, Michael Palin). Image Source: Wiki.
A caveat must be repeated prior to any generational discussion: generalizations about whole age groups are never conclusive. One can sketch outlines, but these should not be taken too literally. Boston.com: "Identifying and naming a generation ... is neither entirely a science nor entirely an art. It's not just a question merely of demographics or world events, nor is it just a matter of identifying cultural touchstones. As a result, identifying and naming a generation is always and inevitably semi-malarkey, or 'bullshit.'" In the case of the Silent generation, even to define them as a collective with common generational attitudes is anachronistic. But there are still some things about Silents' sensibilities which may be broadly discussed.
To understand how I am pegging Silent Gen sensibilities, I think of most Silents as a generation who retained a connection with the past, even when they criticized, or laughed at, that past. The Silent generation is a generation that was poised between the pre-1945 past and a constantly changing present (while Silents' Gen X children are poised between past and future). The Silents produced some very funny comedies and extremely dark noirs and thrillers as they sorted out what to keep and what to forget.
After Carol Burnett's Nora Desmond parodies of Sunset Boulevard (1950), Gloria Swanson visited Burnett's show as a guest, Season 7, Episode 3 (aired 29 September 1973 © CBS). Video Source: Youtube. Other parts of that show are here, here and here.
Although their birthdays all more or less fall in the Silents' demographic range, I would tend to think that Shirley Jackson, Philip K. Dick, Neil Armstrong, Audrey Hepburn, Peter Ustinov or Carol Burnett had or have voices more closely associated with the Silent generation than John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Barbara Walters, Martin Luther King, Jr. or Jim Henson. Silents may have been more influenced by their predecessors Vladimir Nabokov, Alfred Hitchcock, Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell than contemporary figures noted by the Boomers, such as Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot or Marshall McLuhan. Silents' trademark reflections involve ironic twists and multiple moral meanings. There is a weighing of different quantities, a balancing of various qualities.
Some Silents did climb aboard the Boomers' grand redesign of the global village in the 1960s and 1970s. Very ironically, it is these members of the generation whom we know best, due to Boomers' attention to their roles: see here, here, here, here, here and here and here. Lately, Boomer commentators have moved to incorporate the Silents as proto-Boomers. For example, this historical list of counter-cultural events makes the 1950s and 1960s look like decades which led unambiguously to the Summer of Love. It was not that simple.
"Whatever people say I am, that's what I am not." Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) © Bryanston Films/Continental Films. In the original 1958 novel of the same name by Alan Sillitoe, the angry young man protagonist rejects drudgery. He is working class, trapped between his yearning for freedom and his rejection of becoming bourgeois. Video Source: Youtube.
As the Silents' entered adulthood in the 1950s and 1960s, they saw themselves reflected in some seminal and intense British films: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Billy Liar. Who goes back to those Angry Young Men, those Ladies Not for Burning, and the strains of jazz during the early Cold War? Silents contemplated the Beat preconditions for the Boomer cultural explosion when they went on the road. Like the Boomers, they had broken with the past after World War II. But unlike Boomers, they remembered the war. And because of the war's influence on their sensibilities, many Silents forged a stoic continuity with the past. Their adherence to that continuity was rebellious. It was never simple or untroubled, as many of their iconic early cultural expressions reveal.
"It's pretty dreary living in the American age, unless of course you're an American." Burton's angry young man implodes rather than explodes, targeting his wife played by Mary Ure, then her friend played by Claire Bloom, in the film version of John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger (1956). In this scene (starting at 1:24), the protagonist rejects building a personality cult of 'me' as a way out of his impoverished despair. The film (1959) © Warner Bros. Video Source: Youtube.
"How big does a cause have to be before you kill your friends?" (4:18-7:55) Richard Burton and Claire Bloom in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965) based on the 1963 novel by John Le Carré. Video Source: Youtube.
In their youths, Silents toured cities and traveled across countrysides which were still former battlefields. They were surrounded by war veterans, some of whom entered the post-war universities with far more mature attitudes alongside these younger freshmen. The war also shook up the class system. The Silents were aware of working class pre-war pains, including the shadow of the Great Depression, which were still very real. This was a period on the cusp of the prosperity that shaped the Baby Boomers. But before that time of wealth there was a sombre post-war period, during which the society digested the horrors of war in film noir, and real murder cases as well as gritty social-realist or "kitchen sink dramas."
Silents watched the Cold War become seemingly permanent when the Berlin Wall was built in 1961. They bathed in spy stories, which gave them a sense of layered realities, expedient politics, and troubled, unfair justice. What do we make of young adults who never really identified with James Dean (their supposed object portrait) and thought so much of Richard Burton?
While they were aware of the grinding existential crisis that was the post World War II condition, most Silents did not become radicals to overturn the past. Generally speaking, the Silents built the foundation for the Boomers' social revolution, a revolution with which many of them did not agree. The Silents' response to the flowering of Boomers' collective consciousness was mixed. Ask Silents, and they won't always like Boomers' depiction of the 1950s. Many Silents joined Boomers' 1960s and 1970s anti-Vietnam War protests. However, Silents began parting ways with the Boomers in the 1970s. Silents built enclaves where they could negotiate around the increasingly Boomer-dominated reality and where they preserved and revised traditions on their own terms.
I was struck by this separate path through an anecdotal account of Silent generation communities in the 1970s in a post by Kate Sherrod. Generalizations from personal memories do not a generation make. But it is true that I had similarly witnessed Silents establishing enclaves and spheres of activity somewhat off the Boomers' beaten paths, with priorities different from those of Baby Boomers.
Perhaps this alternate set of choices was the Silent generation's separate peace. Silents have built a distinct, little-discussed generational legacy that has implications now and for the future. This is important, because to look at the media now, one would think that all aspects of public discourse from the 1960s to 2000s have been the product of Baby Boomer ideas and initiatives - and there is no other contemporary alternative that runs alongside (not through) the Boomer consensus. This is not true.
To the extent that they did not join the Boomer project, the Silent generation's legacy is the Boomers' 'path not traveled.' These are my intuitive senses of what that legacy might be:
- Silents developed values and made social choices which ran concurrently, and sometimes overlapped, with Boomer activism. But Silents' values and choices were their own, and not solely reactions to Boomer initiatives.
- Silents formed a critical connection to the past and did not cut ties with it. As the above film clips suggest, Silents recognized serious social problems, especially class inequalities. But in amending them, they ultimately did not revolutionize history as the Boomers did.
- Even when they rejected older norms and conventions, Silents still connected to vertical social alignments, that is, Realpolitik, family, professional work, duty outside oneself, community, canon culture and social traditions. The Boomers, by contrast, based their social revolution on horizontal alignments: domestic politics, generations, class, self-improvement, nationalism, and newly-founded traditions. A clichéed view of the Boomers sees them regarding any vertical social alignment as tyrannical, benighted, conservative and hierarchical.
- Silents' acceptance of vertical and horizontal loyalties was more holistic or synthetic, and not always an either/or proposition, as was the case for radical Baby Boomers.
- Similarly, Silents' understanding of politics was not necessarily as polarized as that of the Boomers. Silents could accept situations and arguments which Boomers would likely find politically paradoxical or irreconcilable.
- Silents include the founding Postmodernists. Consider Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, Michel de Certeau, Pierre Bourdieu, Louis Marin, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, J.G. Ballard, Luce Irigaray, Christian Metz, Guy Debord, Hélène Cixous, Umberto Eco, and Paul Virilio: "members of this generation grew up in a world in which two world wars, the Holocaust, the Stalinist Gulag, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki demonstrated the carnage and destruction that the modernist rhetoric of progress is capable of creating. If their elders (e.g., the New York Intellectuals) abandoned utopianism (the dream of a momentous, rational, all-encompassing change in the human condition, achieved through the revolutionary transformation of society), Postmoderns went even further, and repudiated the archetype of modernity as a force for unmitigated progress. Some of those who lost faith in Progress became conservatives; others (with the notable exception of those involved in the Civil Rights movement) balanced progressive concerns with irony, absurdism, and apocalypticism. Their (anti-totalitarian) destabilizing and de-essentializing of orthodoxies led Postmoderns to question whether there is any longer a meaningful basis for collective agreement or action. So, wedged between the activist Greatest and Boomer Generations, they seemed 'silent.'" Ironically, many Silents still seem to accept objective standpoints, however impossible those may be to define. Boomers appear to have conformed much more to the Postmodern insistence on subjectivity, which allows reality to be deconstructed and redefined.
- When it came to reform and tradition, Silents could be self-contradictory. Although Silents helped to maintain some older cultural norms and values (even the founding Postmodernists took the arts canon as read), they also embarked on significant changes. But these changes were often amendments to, or enhancements of, the canon. A good Silent Gen example is Glenn Gould's interpretation of Bach; another is the use of improvisation in classical and jazz music, initially still confined by prescribed idioms; another is the mass market paperback publication of literary classics.
- Silents built enclaves within which to focus on particular concerns (for example, the environment). Unlike Boomers, they did not collectively build big, clearly-marketed, monolithic generation-wide, gender-wide or nation-wide movements.
- As far as institutions went, the Silents prevented these entities from becoming dehumanized and all-powerful in the economy. In business, they did this by retaining an old liberal culture of professionalism within institutions.
- Silents preserved a connection to capitalism. But they avoided capital's total subjection to corporate interests, something which cannot be said of Baby Boomers. Silents maintained spheres which treasured individual and small initiatives, and prevented them from being absorbed by the corporatization of art and culture. The high point of subsidized high culture broadcasts on public radio and television coincided with the rise of the Silent generation.
- The promotion of high culture and education during the Silents' heyday from the 1970s up to the 1990s indicates a guarded idealism, a belief that social inequities could be relieved through the improvement of everyone in society, top to bottom. At the same time, Silents struggled with patriarchal aspects of this view of culture - an inconsistency which the Boomers avoided.
Silents' espionage over Boomers' activism. Nostalgia for Le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) revisits the Silent Gens in a new Millennial retelling (2011) © StudioCanal and Working Title Films. Video Source: Youtube. The film clip of this version of the song La Mer was performed live by Julio Inglesias in 1976 at the Olympia theater in Paris.
**You have Isaac Asimov's short story What If-- (1952); Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle (1962); Pavane by Keith Roberts (1968); Vladimir Nabokov's Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969); All Evil Shed Away by Archie Roy (1970); Lighter than a Feather by David Westheimer (1971); The Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad (1972); Tunnel Through the Deeps by Harry Harrison (1972); For Want of a Nail by Robert N. Sobel (1973); The Ultimate Solution by Eric Norden (1973); Guido Morselli's Past Conditional (Contro-passato prossimo) (1975); Kingsley Amis's The Alteration (1976); Ira Levin's The Boys from Brazil (1976); SS-GB by Len Deighton (1978); The Divide by William Overgard (1980); A Rebel in Time by Harry Harrison (1983); Gray Victory by Robert Skimin (1988); Fatherland by Robert Harris (1992); Konpeki no Kantai by Yoshio Aramaki (1992); Disaster At D-Day by Peter Tsouras (1994); 1945 by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen (1995); December 7, 1941: A Different Path by David L. Alley (1995); Attentatet i Pålsjö skog by Hans Alfredson (1996); Back in the USSA by Eugene Byrne and Kim Newman (1997); K is for Killing by Daniel Easterman (1997); Making History by Stephen Fry (1997); Resurrection Day by Brendan DuBois (1999); Fox on the Rhine by Douglas Niles and Michael Dobson (2000); After Dachau by Daniel Quinn (2001); The Children's War by J.N. Stroyar (2001); Collaborator by Murray Davies (2003); In the Presence of Mine Enemies by Harry Turtledove (2003); Philip Roth's The Plot Against America (2004); The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon (2007); 1945 by Robert Conroy (2007); Macarthur's War by Douglas Niles and Michael Dobson (2007); The Execution Channel by Ken MacLeod (2008); 1942 by Robert Conroy (2009); The Afrika Reich by Guy Saville (2011); 11/22/63 by Stephen King (2011); Himmler's War by Robert Conroy (2012).
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